Ripping Off the Band-Aid: The Struggle of Asking for Help by Lauren Cuthbert

Content warning: Depression, pet death

I’m a solitary person by nature. I prefer to spend my time in my own company, watching a film or a TV show, or crocheting to keep my hands busy. I don’t mind being in my own head – in fact, for the most part, I prefer it. I wasn’t fazed by lockdown: being told to stay indoors didn’t substantially alter my daily routine, and I figured I wouldn’t have much trouble adjusting to the state of the world if I was already used to spending the majority of my time in my room. Back in April of 2020, I was chatting with a friend who asked me how I was coping with lockdown. At the time, I’d been unemployed since graduating from my MA five months previously; I was in the process of applying for jobs, but also considering undertaking a PhD. I said, and I remember it exactly, “My life literally has not changed at all, so I’m fine.”

I don’t think I’m alone in this, especially when it comes to other academics at the PhD stage of their career. A PhD is a very lonely undertaking, and that’s something you have to be comfortable with when you commit to it. You have your supervisor, of course, but you really have to work hard to find others who are in similar positions, since there’s no easy, obvious way of meeting others, like there would be in a lecture hall or a seminar room. Like with the lockdown, I assumed I’d be able to handle it, because I was already used to spending most of my time with just my own thoughts for company. 

Starting My PhD Journey

I moved to Aberdeen, Scotland at the start of my PhD in late September of 2020, and I was doing fine. I had a room and a kitchen to myself, I was doing my own shopping and cooking, and I could choose how to spend my time. At home in Jarrow, England, I was living with my parents and my grandma, but in Aberdeen I was entirely in charge of my life, of the food I ate and the things I watched and when to do my laundry. It was freedom of a sort, and researching came easy. And then I went home for Christmas.

Right after Christmas, the UK entered another lockdown, and I couldn’t travel back to Scotland until May 2021. A trip that should have been approximately three weeks long ended up lasting almost six months. Working from home at over the Christmas break was fine – I had a desk in the kitchen and plenty of space to leave my things, and I could write up my literature review without being disturbed, but after Christmas my dad went back to working from home and I couldn’t use the desk anymore. My space was abruptly diminished, and all at once I was stuck in my bedroom with no desk and nowhere else in the house that was halfway viable to work from. I only left my bedroom for the most basic reasons – eating, getting a drink, using the bathroom. The most time I spent outside was taking my elderly dog for increasingly shorter walks as he got more and more unsteady on his paws.

My entire world slowly became smaller until I existed exclusively inside the four walls of my room. It was the lockdown, I told myself. Everyone was in the same boat, and many others were probably having the same problems. It was just the lockdown. I’d get over it eventually.

I emailed my supervisor a few times, asking to delay our meeting so I could have another week to revise my literature review. A week, and another week, and another week. My supervisor was as accommodating as anyone could possibly have been, and eventually she suggested waiting until I had work to send before we organised a meeting at all.

So I didn’t do anything for a while. It became easy, in fact, to do nothing. What was difficult was scraping myself out of bed, doing anything other than lie around pretending I didn’t have anything to do but occupy my brain with mindlessness. I gave myself hundreds of excuses: a national lockdown, and another self-imposed lockdown exclusively in my bedroom, and having nowhere to do my work, and being given extra time by my supervisor. I watched TV shows and films and TV shows and films and TV shows and films. I played games on my Switch. I stopped checking my emails. My dog died, and I flipped so rapidly between heartbreak and numbness after his death that it made my head spin. I crocheted and crocheted and crocheted. My phone stopped giving me push notifications for university emails, so it was as if I wasn’t really getting any emails at all. I didn’t go to sleep until five in the morning. I avoided touching the ‘PhD Work’ folder on my laptop as if it was something diseased. 

Not Actually Okay

One day in early March, my mam asked me if I was okay and I told her that I was. I was lying, and I didn’t realise I was until after I told the lie. This was the same day I missed three calls on my mobile from my supervisor, and received a very concerned email from her to my personal email account, telling me that if I didn’t make contact there would be serious repercussions for my position at the university. An hour later I was talking to my parents in a flood of tears. I wasn’t okay, I had been struggling, I was scared and unsure about my future and convinced that I’d made the wrong decision. I had no more passion for my research, I wanted to drop out, and I was regretting everything.

For almost the entire duration of my BA, I was depressed and medicated for depression. I consulted with my doctor and stopped taking my antidepressants when I started my MA, and I was fine. I thought I was better. It wasn’t until I was talking to my parents that night, trying to sort through the feelings of insecurity and regret and bitterness and anger and sadness and guilt, that I realised I wasn’t better. I had been okay, for a while, but something had happened, something had turned a switch in my brain, and it felt as if I’d regressed.

Trying to discern whether you’re clinically depressed or just lazy and avoidant is difficult, because it’s hard to look at yourself uncritically when your brain is working against you. I told my parents I was worried I had made the wrong decision and hadn’t realised until right at this moment. I’d been telling myself for months that the problem was my surroundings, the problem was lockdown, the problem was having no place to do my work, the problem was losing my dog, the problem was the difficult situation at home with my family, and so forth. The problem, also, was staying awake until five in the morning, and avoiding my work, and using my supervisor’s understanding accommodations as an excuse to do absolutely nothing. I blamed it on perfectionism, and I think that was partially the case, but there’s a difference between trying to make sure everything you write is perfect because you’re worried about being critiqued, and constantly telling yourself that everything you write is terrible and useless and you are too.

If I had just been depressed, I might have been okay. If it had just been the lockdown, I might have been okay. But it was both at once. And, worse than that, as I’d said to my friend almost a year before, “My life literally has not changed at all, so I’m fine.” I told myself I was used to isolating myself, occupying myself, entertaining myself, and therefore convinced myself that lockdown hadn’t really impacted me the way it might have impacted a more gregarious, outgoing person with a much more expansive social life. I told myself I should have been coping, and convinced myself that I was, and it wasn’t until outside forces convened and told me that I wasn’t that I finally saw it for myself. I had a long talk with my supervisor, and in the course of that conversation I formed a plan with her. 

The Plan

On my supervisor’s suggestion, I talked to my doctor and resumed taking my medication. I started to see a therapist again. I set an alarm and made myself get out of bed every morning at the same time, regardless of how tired I was, and quickly enough my sleeping schedule began to normalise. I worked steady hours every day, getting back into a routine, scraping myself back together. It wasn’t easy at first. In fact, it felt like hell. Everything I did was forced, difficult, and painful, but I did it – like ripping off a band-aid, I just did it, teeth gritted, wincing through it.

I finished my 12,000-word progression piece a few days in advance of the deadline, and worked on a paper to present at the 2021 Women in German Studies conference, the first conference presentation of my academic career. I committed to meetings every two weeks with my supervisor, even if I didn’t have anything to send her, just to make sure it was part of my schedule and I had something to work towards. I don’t really know when it happened, but I managed to find the passion for my subject again, and I know it’s because I pushed myself to keep going. The idea of working – researching, planning, writing – excites me again. I look back at myself at the start of this year and I can see the conflagration of events: the resurgence of my depression combined with the pressures and isolation of lockdown. I understand now that there’s a difference between choosing to keep to myself and being forced to stay indoors. I wish I’d never let my situation become as dire as it was, even if it wasn’t intentional on my part, but rather a result of the way my depression was working against me, but I’m glad that I managed to get myself back on track, and the things I’ve learned from this experience are absolutely invaluable.

I know that many people reading this will have had similar experiences to me, or that maybe their situations will be worse. Maybe they don’t have supportive parents or an equally supportive and understanding supervisor. I also know, all too well, that not everyone is going to miraculously find their passion again the way I did. For some, dropping out will be the right decision for their mental health and wellbeing or for their livelihoods, and there’s nothing wrong with coming to that decision and seeing it through.

But when I spent that night talking to my parents in floods of tears, I wasn’t in the right frame of mind to make a life-altering decision like dropping out because it was the first time in all those months that I’d even admitted to myself that there was something wrong. I remember sitting on the sofa considering quitting, and even just that consideration lifted the weight of all those PhD-related responsibilities from my shoulders. No more writing, no more deadlines, no more research. But under it all—and it took some digging to find it—there was a pang of potential loss; the sorrow that I wouldn’t be able to work on a project about which I’m singularly passionate. If I quit then and there, then I’d never have this opportunity again.  I had to straighten myself out first, at least a little, and clear my head enough to see where exactly my compulsion to drop out was coming from – was it the truth of the situation, what I really needed to do for myself, or was it something brought on by the insecurity and tunnel vision of a lethal combination of depression and lockdown-induced isolation?

How did I get to this point in my recovery? In my experience, I have found that getting out of your own head is vital. It’s difficult when you’re a PhD student and you do so much work on your own, but it will help to talk to someone, anyone, if you’re struggling. Avoiding your responsibilities will only ever obscure the truth of your situation with feelings of guilt and avoidance and stress, conglomerating into a huge ball that just grows bigger and bigger the longer it’s ignored, like a single mote of dust in that one hard-to-reach place becoming a dust bunny. Even if you’re the most independent person in the world, using your own brain as your only point of reference to make decisions is inadvisable. If it wasn’t for my supervisor and my parents, I might have made a decision I regretted. Often, there are support networks in place for students: you can ask for extensions, your mental health needs can be accommodated, and if you really want to try to keep going, all you have to do is make those few initial steps to push yourself back into a place where you can make the right decision. Just because a PhD is a lonely experience, it doesn’t mean you’re alone while you’re doing it. 

Lauren Cuthbert

Lauren is a second-year PhD student in the German department at the University of Aberdeen in Scotland, studying the Vietnam War films of GDR documentarians Walter Heynowski and Gerhard Scheumann. You can find them at @laurenycuthbert on Twitter.